Source with those fries, please

March 31, 2011

What component of a hi-fi system makes the single biggest difference in sound?

I go against the grain by insisting that the answer is: the speakers. [I should mention that at least one of Witchdoctor’s experts is with me on this one].

I’m no tech guru, but I do love great sound, and over the years and a pawn-shop’s worth of components coming and going, it became obvious to me that speakers were the key.

Getting my first pair of Martin Logan hybrid electrostatic speakers last year really reinforced this view. I had tried my lovely Theophany M5s with a selection of sources, but despite their sonic abilities, I just wasn’t hearing what I needed to hear for the range of music I enjoy, which embraces everything from avant-garde electronica to progressive rock and jazz-fusion. Listening to Martin Logan’s Purity speakers was like going widescreen: suddenly I had pin-point imaging, true depth, and they could really deal with the stereo skullduggery that modern producer/engineers are so skilled with. Oh, and it’s a hi-fi cliché, I know, but they were so crystal-clear that even recordings I was bored with flowered with extra detail that made them compelling once again.

But. And it’s a big ‘But’. [As opposed to a big butt?] I can see why so many audiophiles drone on about the Source.

When I had to sold my lovely Yamaha CD1000 last year, I thought I could make do with my old 1988 Philips, which sounded pretty good for its age, while lacking the sonic depth and dynamism of the Yammy. Then I auditioned the new wonder-CD player from Audiolab, the 8200, and was underwhelmed. A friend lent me his beaut Jungson Moon Harbour, and while its sound was smooth and detailed, it still didn’t quite grab me on a good proportion of discs. By the time my Philips died the good death, presumably for good, I had started pining for the old days. Feeling sorry for earthquake, Tsunami and radiation-plagued Japan, I bought another Yammy, this time the big brother to my CD1000, the CD2000, which has an identical retro casing. In fact, it appears to be the same in every way, except that it has balanced outputs that I can’t use, because my ML speakers are powered by an internal amp without balanced inputs. Never mind. The important thing is that listening to this gorgeous beast is like coming home to the good wife after a month at sea. Sonically, the Yamaha is fabulous, and really brings my MLs to life, adding copious dynamic bass heft and rendering that legendary sound stage at its best.

So, then, I do understand that the legendary “Source” is important, but still tend to think that line of thought has some holes in it.

I do think my Yamaha is a great CD player, but more importantly, it’s compatible with my speakers. The right synergy exists between them.

And as my expert friends at Witchdoctor have suggested, perhaps that Audiolab 8200 might have sounded brilliant on my system had I replaced my Rotel preamp with something that suited it better: apparently Rotel gear is famously a little on the sonic sharp side. Please feel free to dispute this.

In any case, I’m now finding that even badly recorded CDs are vaguely listenable, whereas before I the glare made my teeth ache; but despite a more enjoyable overall listening experience, I’m still getting the forensic detail I want, with no sense of loss.

The jury is still out on the cost versus improvement ratio of cables (etc), but experience tells me that the number one consideration is the speaker. Get that right, then find a source that suits. I reckon. GARY STEEL

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here


  1. It’s nice to read that you’re on the side of good Mr. Steel.
    The Jedi believe that the loudspeaker is the most vital component in any audio system across all the galaxies. Embracing the dark side of the source is the path to doom…

  2. Gigo? Wasn’t that an ‘orrible movie with J Lo?

    I reckon garbage in, garbage out makes a great deal of sense but it was more relevant when Ivor Tiefenbrun was trundling around with his LP12, offering it as a improvement over the lackluster sources of the day.

    The modern CD player or TT performs at an amazing level compared to the golden oldies of the past, which makes the source less critical in the overall equation. If I was spending money on a system, I’d drop at least 50% on the speakers and the rest on the amp/source/cables. There’s no way I’d reverse that and spend more on the source.

    Then again, I am strange, so this is all IMHO and YMMV.

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